SAM WELLER AND THE IRONY OF THE STREETS.
IN the little selection of " Wellerisms,"* which has now reached a second edition, and which Mr. Rideal would have improved by omitting the degenerated Wellerisms of "Master Humphrey's Clock," in which Dickens sought to outstrip himself and really only parodied himself, Mr. Kent, in his preface, unduly depreciates Sam Weller by saying that Weller was to Mr. Pickwick what Sancho Panza was to Don Quixote. He had better have said that Mr. Pickwick was to Sam Weller what Sancho Panza was to Don Quixote, for while Sancho Panza is the foil to give a deeper interest to the melancholy dmamer, Mr. Pickwick, if he is quite so much, is only just as much as a foil to give additional interest to the vivacity of Sam Weller. The elder Weller, who is quite the equal of his son, informs Mr. Pick wick : " I took a good deal o' pains with his eddieation, Sir; let him run in the streets when he was wery young, and shift for hisself. It's the only way to make a boy sharp, Sir." That was undoubtedly the kind of pains which Dickens's father took with his son's education ; and certainly Sam Weller represents the watchfulness, nervous eagerness, and cool conviction that readiness to attack is the best possible defensive armour, which distinguishes the irony of the streets. When Sam Weller explains to his master his theory of filial duty, he expounds his own theory of life rather better, perhaps, than ho expounds his practice,—for Dickens fell so much in love with his own creation, that he made Sam Weller in the end much more faithful and loyal than the education of the streets would have had any tendency to make him. Still, the following is the very view of filial duty which the education of the streets would generate :--" I am very glad to see that you have so high a sense of your duties as a son, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick.—' I always had, sir,' replied Mr. Weller.— 'That's a very gratifying reflection, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, approvingly.= Wery, sir,' replied Mr. Weller ; ' if ever I wanted anythin' o' my father, I always asked for it in a wery
* Record Prone, Limited,
'epectful and obligin' manner. If he didn't give it me, I took it, for fear I should be led to do anythin' wrong, through not havin' it. I saved him a world o' trouble in this vay, sir.'— 'That's not precisely what I meant, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, shaking his head with a Blight smile.—' All good feolin', sir— the wery best intentions, as the genTnen said ven he ran away from his wife 'cos she seemed unhappy with him,' replied Mr. Weller." Sam Weller does not save his master " a world of
trouble" in that fashion ; and, indeed, Dickens's instinct for what the world would like, was keener than his imaginative realism, when be made the education of the streets turn out
not only so smart, but so devoted and disinterested a servant. Thackeray know better when he drew his ideal of the kind of adventuress whom the natural selection of mere competition for the right to exist, would produce. But Dickens never allowed himself to paint his own favourites in a disagreeable light. And the sort of tense energy and sharpness of vision which the warfare of the streets produces, always had a charm for him, for he knew well how much it had been worth to him, and probably did not know at all where it had failed to produce in him the sort of character which the world admires. Sam Weller's irony is a very happy selection of the better bind of the irony of the streets,
deprived of its brutality, and idealised with an occasional flavour of larger knowledge and subtler humour than that
which the life of the streets tends to produce. Dickens's greatest creations were all of them impossibilities, though very delightful impossibilities. No hypocrite was ever so ideally hypocritical even to himself as Mr. Pecksniff, no monthly nurse of monthly nursism so compact as Mrs. Gamp, no product of the streets so agreeable and purely entertaining us Sam Weller, no coachman so humorously pro- fessional and so filled with the superstitious dread of widows as his father. What Dickens loved best was to catch and reduplicate the ludicrous aspects of life, till he fell in love with his own imaginations, and softened towards them even in their most repulsive aspects. He may be said to have invented Mrs. Harris in order to express his own secret admiration for Mrs. Gamp's professional perfection as an enthusiastic appreciator of her own selfishness. You can see Dickens relenting even towards Uriah Heep as he adds touch to touch in the ludicrous picture of his affected humility. But in the case of Sam Weller, Dickens makes no pretence at all of any sort of hostility. From the very first Sam Weller is a hero, and only the better qualities which the fierce competition of
street-life tends to produce are attributed to him. Dickens even attributes to him a kind of witticism which is above the witticism of the streets, though we are so accustomed by that time to expect all that is keen from Sam Weller, that we hardly notice that he is made the mouthpiece rather for one of Dickens's own jokes than for one of Sam Weller's :— " He is a vagabond on his own statement ; is he not, Mr. Jinks P'—' Certainly, sir.'—' Then I'll commit him. I'll commit him as such,' said Mr. Nupkins.—"rhis is a wery impartial country for justice,' said Sam. 'There ain't a magistrate goin' as don't commit himself, twice as often as he commits other people.'—At this sally another special laughed, and then tried to look so super- naturally solemn, that the magistrate detected him immediately."
Indeed, a certain number of Sam Weller's best jokes will be seen to imply a kind of knowledge and a station of life rather above his own,—as, for instance, when he consoles Bob Sawyer for getting wet with this kind of historical witticism :-
"' This is pleasant,' said Bob Sawyer, turning up his coat collar, and pulling the shawl over his mouth to concentrate the fumes of a glass of brandy just swallowed.—' Wery,' replied Sam, com- posedly.—' You don't seem to mind it,' observed Bob.' Vy, I don't exactly see no good my minding on it 'ud do, sir,' replied Sam.—' rhat's an unanswerable reason, anyhow,' said Bob.—
'Yes, sir,' rejoined Mr. Weller. Wotever is, is right, as the young nobleman aveetly remarked wen they put him down in the pension list 'cos his mother's uncle's vife's grandfather ounce lit the king's pipe vith a portable tinder-box.—' Not a bad notion that, Sam,' said Mr. Bob Sawyer, approvingly.= Just wot the young nobleman said ev'ry quarter-day artervards for the rest of his life,' replied Mr. Weller."
But, of course, Dickens was too good an artist to make this sort of witticism more than an occasional sally in Sam Weller's mouth. For the most part, his wit is the hard, sharp wit which has all the edge which iron gives to iron when it comes into constant collision with other specimens of its own hardness. Sam Weller's most characteristic wit is of the steely kind well known to all Londoners who have had ex- perience of the small cockney's impudent curiosity and chaff. This, for example, is a perfect specimen of the ordinary and rougher form of the characteristic irony of the streets :- "' Now, young man, what do you want?' inquired the barmaid. —' Is there anybody here, named Sam ?' inquired the youth, in a loud voice of treble quality.—' What's the t'other name F' said Sam Weller, looking round.= How should I know ?' briskly replied the young gentleman below the hairy cap.= You're a sharp boy, you are,' said Mr. Weller ; only I wouldn't show that wery fine edge too much, if I was you, in case anybody took it off. What do you mean by comin' to a hot-el, and asking arter Sam, with as much politeness as a vild Indian ?'—"Cos an old gen'l'm'n told me to,' replied the boy. = What old gen'l'm'n?' inquired Sam, with deep disdain.—' Him as drives a Ipswich coach, and uses our parlour,' rejoined the boy. ' He told me yesterday mornin' to come to the George and Wulture this arternoon, and ask for Sam.'—' It's my father, my dear,' said Mr. Weller, turning with an explanatory air to the young lady in the bar ; 'blessed if I think ho hardly knows wot my other name is. Veil, young brockiley sprout, wot then P '= Why, then,' said the boy, you was to come to him at six o'clock to our 'ouse, 'cos he wants to see you—Blue Boar, Leaden'all Markit. Shall I say you're comin' ?'—' You may wen- tu.re on that 'ere statement, sir,' replied Sam. And thus empowered, the young gentleman walked away, awakening all the echoes in George Yard as he did so, with several chaste and extremely correct imitations of a drover's whistle, delivered in a tone of peculiar richness and volume."
There is hardly anything in that except great wide-awakeness and that attitude of regarding your competitors from a con- temptuous and hostile point of view, which is of the very essence of the London street-boy's " education." But Sam Weller generally advances far beyond the mere common form of cockney sharpness. When, for example, he makes Dodson and Fogg so foolish by drawing the attention of the Court to the great generosity they had exhibited in taking up Mrs. Bardell's case "on spec," and charging "nothing at all for costs, unless they got 'em out of Mr. Pickwick," be showed how very keen a blade he could wield against his enemies. And when he laid it down that the "great art of letter-writing" is to make your correspondent wish there were more, he was a humourist as well as a wit,—a wit at his own expense by hinting at the meagreness of his ideas, and a humourist at the expense of the pretty housemaid to whom he was writing.
But what the irony of the streets most excels in is in reducing the self-importance of others, and Sam Weller is a great proficient in that art. He made even Serjeant Buzfuz look foolish, in spite of his professional astuteness in dealing with witnesses, by the neatness with which he draws him on into browbeating him for not" seeing though a flight of stairs and a deal door " :— " Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Weller,' said Serjeant Buzfuz, that you saw nothing of this fainting on the part of the plaintiff in the arms of the defendant, which you have hoard described by the witnesses P Certainly not,' replied Sam, I was in the pas- sage 'till they called me up, and then the old lady was not there.' —"Now, attend, Mr. Weller,' said Serjeant Buzfuz, dipping a large pen into the inkstand before him, for the purpose of frightening Sam with a show of taking down his answer. You were in the passage, and yet saw nothing of what was going forward. Have you a pair of eyes, Mr. Weller ?'—' Yes, I have a pair of eyes,' replied Sam, and that's just it. If they woe a pair o' patent double million magnifyin' gas miseroseopes of hextra, power, p'raps I might be able to see through a flight o' stairs and a deal door ; but bein' only eyes, you see, my wision's limited.' At this answer, which was delivered without the slightest appearance of irritation, and with the most complete simplicity and equanimity of manner, the spectators tittered, the little judge smiled, and Serjeant Buzfuz looked particularly foolish."
It is in his keen contests with the Bath flunkeys that Sam Weller gives us the best idea of the irony of the streets. When confronted with the pompous and high- fed footmen of the fashionable city, he showed what he could do, in the way of taking down the self-importance of others, as he had no opportunity of showing it at any other time, excepting during his short examination in the witness-box ; and it is in these collisions with the "superior persons " of his own clitss that he comes out most brilliantly. Perhaps the most curious thing about the genuine street-born wit is that it always seems to be springy, in spite of the squalor and want of which it is so often bred. There, too, Sam Weller represents the typical cockney. It is not that the typical street-boy is always as cheerful as Sam Weller, who, after he got into Mr. Pickwick's service, had certainly every chance of living a life that any 4. boots " or serving-man would have delighted in. But though the irony of the streets is not by any means always born of a buoyant heart, it certainly has the exact effect of cheeriness which Sam Weller's smart sayings give, though there is usually more of the defiant ring in it than there was in Sam Weller's. After all, familiarity with the strife and want of the London streets does seem to lend a sense of force and keenness to the London cockney which no other kind of life supplies.